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Joseph Butler was born in 1692, youngest of eight children of a linendraper at Wantage, in Berkshire. His father was a Presbyterian, and after education at the Wantage Free Grammar School Joseph Butler was sent to be educated for the Presbyterian ministry in a training academy at Gloucester, which was afterwards removed to Tewkesbury. There he had a friend and comrade, Secker, who afterwards became Archbishop of Canterbury. Butler and Secker inquired actively, and there was foreshadowing of his future in the fact that in 1713, at the age of twenty-one, Butler was engaged in anonymous discussion with Samuel Clarke upon his book on the à priori demonstration of the Divine Existence and Attributes.
When the time drew near for call to the ministry, Butler, like his friend Secker, had reasoned himself into accordance with the teaching of the Church of England. Butler’s father did not oppose his strong desire to enter the Church, and he was entered in 1714 at Oriel College, Oxford. At college a strong friendship was established between Butler and a fellow-student, Edward Talbot, whose father was a Bishop, formerly of Oxford and Salisbury, then of Durham. Through Talbot’s influence Butler obtained in 1718 the office of Preacher in the Rolls Chapel, which he held for the next eight years. In 1722 Talbot died, and on his death-bed urged his father on behalf of his friend Butler. The Bishop accordingly presented Joseph Butler to the living of Houghton-le-Spring. But it was found that costs of dilapidations were beyond his means at Houghton, and Butler had a dangerous regard for building works. He was preferred two years afterwards to the living of Stanhope, which then became vacant, and which yielded a substantial income. Butler sought nothing for himself, his simplicity of character, real worth, and rare intellectual power, secured him friends, and the love of two of them—Talbot first, and afterwards Secker, who made his own way in the Church, and became strong enough to put his friend as well as himself in the way of worldly advancement, secured for Butler all the patronage he had, until the Queen also became his active friend.
Joseph Butler was seven years at Stanhope, quietly devoted to his parish duties, preaching, studying, and writing his “Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature.” In 1727, while still at Stanhope, he was appointed to a stall in Durham Cathedral. Secker, having become chaplain to the Queen, encouraged her in admiration of Butler’s sermons. He told her that the author was not dead, but buried, and secured her active interest in his behalf. From Talbot, who had become Lord Chancellor, Secker had no difficulty in obtaining for Butler a chaplaincy which exempted him from the necessity of residence at Stanhope. Butler, in accepting it, stipulated for permission to live and work in his parish for six months in every year. Next he was made chaplain to the King, and Rector of St. James’s, upon which he gave up Stanhope. In 1736 Queen Caroline appointed him her Clerk of the Closet, an office which gave Butler the duty of attendance upon her for two hours every evening. In that year he published his “Analogy,” of which the purpose was to meet, on its own ground, the scepticism of his day. The Queen died in 1737, and, in accordance with the strong desire expressed in her last days, in 1738 Butler was made a Bishop. But his Bishopric was Bristol, worth only £300 or £400 a year. The King added the Deanery of St. Paul’s, when that became vacant in 1740, and in 1750, towards the close of his life, Joseph Butler was translated to the Bishopric of Durham. He died in 1752.
No man could be less self-seeking. He owed his rise in the Church wholly to the intellectual power and substantial worth of character that inspired strong friendship. Seeing how little he sought worldly advancement for himself, while others were pressing and scrambling, Butler’s friends used their opportunities of winning for him the advancement he deserved. He was happiest in doing his work, of which a chief part was in his study, where he employed his philosophic mind in strengthening the foundations of religious faith. Faith in God was attacked by men who claimed especially to be philosophers, and they were best met by the man who had, beyond all other divines of his day—some might not be afraid to add, of any day—the philosophic mind.